Around the Water Cooler

EPA Science In Action: Keeping an Eye on Harmful Algal Blooms

By Cindy Sonich-Mullin

A half million people living in and around Toledo, Ohio recently experienced a weekend without tap water. A “harmful algal bloom” of cyanobacteria in Lake Erie, Toledo’s water source, produced unsafe levels of the toxin microcystin. The toxin is known to cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and at high exposure levels, liver damage.

A water advisory was issued alerting residents to avoid all contact with Toledo drinking water.

At the first sign of trouble, colleagues at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency contacted my laboratory to provide technical assistance and water sample analysis to support the City of Toledo’s drinking water utility.

We were a natural choice to help out. Not only is EPA’s Cincinnati-based laboratory facility relatively close geographically, but our scientific staff includes a team of leading experts with analytical capabilities in drinking water treatment and cyanobacterial toxins.

Throughout the weekend, we performed tests and conducted sensitive analyses to help identify the optimal approach for controlling the toxins in Toledo’s water plant and distribution system. We shared our test results with our partners from Ohio EPA, who interpreted them along with their own results and others from the City of Toledo.

We were all greatly relieved the morning of August 6th, when the City of Toledo determined that they could lift the water advisory.

At the time, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler released the following statement: “After exhaustive testing, analysis and discussions between Toledo water officials, the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA, we support the city’s decision to lift its drinking water advisory. Throughout the difficulty of the past few days everyone involved has demonstrated the utmost professionalism and commitment to solving this problem. The mayor and his team, U.S. EPA and the other scientific and academic leaders who lent us their expertise worked in a constructive way to turn the water back on for the people of Toledo.”

While many weekend plans were cancelled due to the crisis in Toledo, we were honored to be called on to help our sister city to the north. As scientists, it is gratifying to use our expertise and the tools we develop to provide solutions to communities. Of course, what would be even better than lending our expertise and rapid response and analysis capabilities would be to help prevent harmful algal blooms from threatening drinking water supplies in the first place. And that is just what we are doing. In fact, we’ve shared some of our harmful algal bloom research recently here on our blog. Below are some recent posts with more information on that work.

As the above blogs exemplify, EPA researchers are working hard to better understand the dynamics of harmful algal blooms. EPA is also working with other agencies to accelerate the development and deployment of affordable sensors that will help predict future algal blooms. This means we will be even better poised to work with cities like Toledo and other local communities to better protect precious drinking water supplies. Keep an eye here on “It All Starts with Science” to see future posts about that work, and more.

About the Author: Cindy Sonich-Mullin is the Director of EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has over 30 years of experience in EPA, leading research and response efforts on a wide variety of environmental issues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Modeling Fish on the Move

By: Marguerite Huber

How many places have you lived? Why did you move? Personally, I have lived in eight different places because of school and jobs. Other people move to find better opportunities, like housing or a place to raise their children.

Fish are sometimes forced to move as well. But, unlike you and I, fish cannot just get up and move across towns, states, and countries. They have to move across their own river networks to maximize survival.

For fish, the availability of sufficient spawning and rearing habitats can strongly influence the productivity of an entire river network. Fish also move based on certain environmental drivers like warming temperatures, and human activities such as land development, building of dams, and changes in stream channels, which can contribute to water pollution or alter fish habitat. Additionally, fish are affected by their interactions with other species. When different species interact, they can compete for resources or have a predator-prey relationship.

The Willamette river network, color-coded to show which of the 3 primary environmental conditions are currently most limiting habitat suitability for Chinook salmon, a species of high management concern.

The Willamette river network, color-coded to show which of the 3 primary environmental conditions are currently most limiting habitat suitability for Chinook salmon, a species of high management concern.

To fully understand fish in their changing environment, EPA researchers created a model that simulates groups of fish in river landscapes. This model helps determine how fish populations reproduce, move, and survive in response to both environmental drivers and species interactions. It is designed to help EPA assess the impacts of land development on fish assemblages, and better understand how these impacts may be intensified by climate change.

The researchers studied how Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) respond to steepness of the stream channel, flow, and temperature in the Willamette River basin of Oregon. This region is important to study because it is expected to experience substantial rises in human population and water demand over the next 50 years. The model, which can be applied to any watershed, helped create a map of the salmon’s abundance and distribution in the Willamette River basin. To capture species interaction, scientists also modeled the abundance of another fish, the northern pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus oregonensis), a native predator and competitor of Chinook salmon.

Afterwards, researchers modeled both species together, accounting for projected effects of competition and predation. They found that species interactions and temperature affect both Chinook salmon and northern pikeminnow. The results show species distributions throughout the basin and their projected responses to future stressors such as climate change, water consumption, and hydropower management.

Not only will EPA’s model help construct a map of fish on the move, but it will help inform the science used to develop water quality regulations and trading, help prioritize restoration, and advise management decisions.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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I’ll Trade You: Water Quality Science Edition

By Marguerite Huber

Landsat image of Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake Bay watershed includes six states and the District of Columbia. Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

The outcome of a trade can sometimes be the luck of the draw. You may not have gotten a better sandwich for the one you traded at lunch, or the all-star pitcher your team acquired in that mid-season trade may turn out to be a bust.

On the other hand, the best kind of trade is one where everybody wins. EPA researchers are helping bring just that kind of trade to improve water quality.

Chesapeake Bay is an expansive watershed that encompasses some or all of six states and the District of Columbia. High levels of nutrients flowing in from all over that expansive watershed decrease oxygen in the water and kill aquatic life, creating chronic and well-known dead zones.

To help, EPA established the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which sets a cap on nutrient and sediment emissions to restore water quality, ensure high quality habitats for aquatic organisms, and protect and sustain fisheries, recreation and other important Bay activities.

Recent innovations in Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere have promoted a new type of trading, called water quality trading, to meet watershed-level reductions in nutrient pollution. The goal is to facilitate individual flexibility and responsiveness while creating incentives to reduce overall nutrient flow from both agricultural and urban areas.

Here is how water quality trading would work…

Farmers and wastewater treatment plants have the opportunity to team up to collectively meet the water quality goal by reducing nutrients. While both entities have their own baseline nutrient emission level they must shoot for, they can gain tradable credits if they do better. A farmer that plants nitrogen-absorbing crops such as barley and wheat can sell the credits they gain to a wastewater treatment plant that needs to reduce its own emissions.

Silhouette of kids on dock at sunset

A healthy Chesapeake is a win for everybody!

Trading is based on the widely different costs it can take to control the same kind of pollutant, depending on its source and location. For example, upgrading wastewater treatment plants and ripping up urban streets to replace leaky stormwater drainage pipes could cost billions of dollars. On the other hand, planting new or different crops is much less expensive.

Like the TMDL itself, the development of the water trading system began with science. EPA-supported scientists and economists developed a computer model to find the least costly mix of pollution-reduction options across the watershed for meeting the TMDL. The model also has been used to explore how different trading policies could help to meet TMDL requirements, and as the basis for analyzing policies leading to the nutrient trading guidelines for Chesapeake Bay.

Overall, water quality trading depends on cooperation across the watershed to help achieve faster, less expensive pollutant reductions that improve the Bay’s water quality. It’s a win-win for everybody.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Modeling Cyanobacteria Ecology to Keep Harmful Algal Blooms at Bay

By: Betty Kreakie, Jeff Hollister, and Bryan Milstead

Sign on beach warning of harmful algal bloom

U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Dr. Jennifer L. Graham

Despite a lengthy history of research on cyanobacteria, many important questions about this diverse group of aquatic, photosynthetic “blue-green algae” remain unanswered.  For example, how can we more accurately predict cyanobacteria blooms in freshwater systems?  Which lakes have elevated risks for such blooms?  And what characteristics mark areas with high risks for cyanobacteria blooms?

These are important questions, and our ecological modeling work is moving us closer to finding some answers.

The gold standard for understanding cyanobacteria in lakes is direct measurements of certain water quality variables, such as levels of nutrients, chlorophyll a, and pigments.  This of course requires the ability to take on site (“in situ”) samples, something that is not possible to do for every lake in the country.  Our modeling work is focused on predicting cyanobacterial bloom risk for lakes that have not been directly sampled.

We are using remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) data to model bloom risk for all lakes in the continental United States.  The work is also starting to shed light on some of the landscape factors that may contribute to elevated predicted bloom risk.  For example, we know that different regions have different predictive risk.   We are also learning about how lake depth and volume, as well as the surrounding land use impact cyanobacteria abundance.

In addition to our national modeling efforts, we are collaborating with others on smaller scale and more focused studies at regional and local scales.  First, we are partnering with other EPA researchers to develop time-series models using data gathered frequently and over a long time by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.  By using these data, we expect to tease apart information about annual timing and the intensity of blooms.  We can also explore aspects of seasonal variability and frequency. Lastly, we are starting to explore ways to use approximately 25 years of data collected by Rhode Island citizen science as part of the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program.  We hope to mine these data and uncover indicators of harmful algal bloom events.

With all this work, we and our partners are adding new chapters to the long history of cyanobacteria research in ways we hope will help communities better predict, reduce, and respond to harmful blooms.

About the Authors: EPA ecologists Betty Kreakie, Jeff Hollister, and Bryan Milstead are looking for ways to decrease the negative impacts of cyanobacteria and harmful algal blooms on human health and the environment.

NOTE: Join Betty Kreakie, Jeff Hollister, and Bryan Milstead for a Twitter chat today (June 26) at 2:00pm (eastern time zone) using the hashtag #greenwater. Please follow us @EPAresearch.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Tool Saves Millions of Dollars After Wildfire

By Marguerite Huber

Wildfire conflagration on forested hillsides

Wildfire seasons are getting longer and burning more acres. Photo by USDA Forest Service.

Fueled by drought, disease, and suburban sprawl, wildfire seasons are getting longer and burning more acres of land. Last August, the Elk Complex wildfire burned more than 130,000 acres east of Boise, Idaho. Nearly 75% of the burned area had high to moderate burn severity, threatening the ecosystem and the region’s water. Substantial fires have already flared up this summer around San Diego, California, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

Once a fire is about 80% contained, scientists and other experts from the Department of the Interior’s National Interagency Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) team can go into the region and help develop emergency stabilization plans. They are aided by a resource—the Automated Geospatial Watershed Assessment (AGWA) tool—developed by researchers from EPA, the Agricultural Research Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), and the University of Arizona.

Originally developed as a computer model for use managing and analyzing water quantity and quality, fire recovery teams are now tapping it to identify potential threats to people, wildlife, and the land from post-fire flooding and erosion.

Watershed managers use AGWA to identify and assess downstream impacts and risks from increased flooding and erosion resulting from fire-related changes to habitats and soils. The tool can also be used to target restoration efforts, such as where to apply mulch and seed with native plant stock, to reduce such downstream risks.

“AGWA is a good example of a science product developed between two leading federal research agencies with mutual interest,” said EPA research ecologist William Kepner. “The tool provides a practical application with immediate benefits.”

For the Elk Complex wildfire, the BAER team estimates it saved approximately $7,000,000 to $8,000,000 by using AGWA to target 2,000 acres for treatment instead of the initial 16,000 acres identified through more traditional methods.

“AGWA is able to help the team develop a stabilization plan where post-wildfire impacts pose immediate and significant threats to people and property,” Kepner adds.

Additionally, the emergency response team has successfully used the tool for post-fire watershed assessments following fires in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Idaho, and Washington. More than 8,000 users, spanning six continents, 163 countries, and 4,903 cities, have registered to use the Automated Geospatial Watershed Assessment tool .

The AGWA tool has been included as an ecosystem services analysis tool in the new EPA EnviroAtlas, and can be downloaded here. It provides an important resource for meeting the challenge of longer, more destructive wildfire seasons.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Open Science and Cyanobacterial Research at EPA

By: Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie, and Bryan Milstead

Green, algal-filled pond

Algal bloom containing cyanobacteria.

It wasn’t long ago that science always occurred along a well-worn path. Observations led to hypotheses; hypotheses led to data collection; data led to analyses; and analyses led to publications. And along this path, data, hypotheses, and analyses were held close and, more often than not, the only public-facing view of the research was the final publication.

Science has come a long way with this model.  However, it was conceived when print was the main media and most scientific questions could be investigated by few scientists over a short period of time.

Then came computers. Then came the internet.

Just like in every other aspect of modern life, these advances are greatly impacting science. It has changed who conducts our science, how we share it, and how others interact with scientific information. All of these changes are playing out through the increasing openness of all parts of the scientific process.

This broad area has been defined as having several components. These components suggest that “open science”:

  • is transparent (and, of course, open)
  • includes all parts of research (data, code, etc.)
  • allows others to repeat the work
  • should be posted on an open and accessible website (while protecting Personally Identifiable Information, etc.)
  • occurs along a gradient (i.e. not just a binary open vs. not open)

At EPA, we are learning how to make our research on cyanobacteria and human health (for more info join our webinar) meet those criteria.  We are implementing open science in three ways: (1) making our work available via open access publishing; (2) providing access to the code used in our analysis; and (3) making our data openly available.

Several members of our research group have embraced open access options for publishing their research. For instance, our colleague Elizabeth Hilborn and her co-authors published results of their study—examining a group of dialysis patients following exposure to the cyanobacteria toxin microcystin—in one of the pioneering open access journals, PLoS ONE. Also in PLoS ONE, EPA scientist Bryan Milstead and his collaborators published a modeling method to combine the U.S. Geological Survey’s SPARROW model (a modeling tool for interpreting regional water-quality monitoring data), lake depth, lake volume, and EPA National Lakes Assessment data to estimate nutrient concentrations.

As our work progresses, we will continue to choose open access journals. In our experience, this has allowed our research to reach a larger audience and we can more easily track the impact through readership levels using available tools such as PLoS Article Level Metrics.

We are also sharing our data. Currently, this is accomplished through supplements added to publications and through sites such as the EPA’s Environmental Dataset Gateway. We plan to expand these efforts via data publications, version-controlled repositories, and through the development of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that provide access to data for developers and other scientists.

The goal of these efforts, and more (stay tuned for a future post on how coding fits in to open science), is to increase the reproducibility of our work (but challenges remain), reach broader audiences, and eventually have a greater impact on our understanding and management of harmful algal blooms.

About the Authors: EPA ecologists Jeff Hollister, Betty Kreakie and Bryan Milstead study greenwater for a living. If you have questions for them, join the webinar on June 25th or follow the twitter chat on June 26th using #greenwater.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Wetlands: Earth’s Kidneys

By Marguerite Huber

Stream restoration research

Stream restoration research

Our organs are vital to our health, with each one playing a significant part. Kidneys, for instance, filter our blood to remove waste and fluid. Wetlands are often referred to as “Earth’s kidneys” because they provide the same functions, absorbing wastes such as nitrogen and phosphorous. When excess amounts of these substances—nutrient loading—flow into waterways it can mean harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, and summer fish kills.

Recognizing the importance of wetlands, many communities are taking steps to protect, restore, and even create wetlands.

For example, many stream restoration projects include constructing wetlands to absorb stormwater runoff and absorb excess nutrients and other pollutants that flow in from a host of sources across the watershed (known collectively as nonpoint source pollutants).

These constructed wetlands can provide key elements to urban stormwater management because they help reduce the impacts of runoff after a rainstorm or big snowmelt event. Such runoff typically transports high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous and suspended solids from road surfaces into waterways.

One such type of wetland that may provide these kinds of benefits is the oxbow lake, so named because of their curved shape. These form naturally when a wide bend in a stream gets cut off from the main channel, but EPA researchers are taking advantage of a couple of oxbow wetlands created during stream restoration activities at Minebank Run, an urban stream in Baltimore County, MD.

The researchers are studying the oxbow wetlands to quantify how effective such artificially created wetlands are at absorbing nitrogen and phosphorous in an urban setting. If these types of wetlands are effective, then deliberately constructing oxbow wetlands could be an important nutrient management strategy in such landscapes.

From May 2008 through June 2009, the researchers analyzed water, nitrate (a form of nitrogen pollution), and phosphate flow during four storms to better understand the impacts of hydrology on the potential for the two oxbow wetlands and the adjacent restored streambed to absorb or release nutrients.

The results suggest that oxbow wetlands in urban watersheds have the potential to be “sinks” that absorb and store nitrogen. They also reinforced information pointing to the dynamic hydrologic connection linking water and nutrient flow between streams and nearby oxbow wetlands, findings that if confirmed through further investigation can be used to improve restoration efforts that improve water quality across entire watersheds.

When it comes to phosphorus, the researchers found that oxbows don’t function as “sinks,” but “sources,” that contribute a net increase of the nutrient. They hypothesize that this is because the nutrient is released from wetland sediments during storms or other similar events. Future studies are needed to investigate the magnitude of phosphorous release, and how important that contribution is across the watershed.

Just like how our kidneys are an essential aspect of the human body, wetlands are an important aspect of nature. Retaining additional nutrients and treating non-point source pollutants help give natural and constructed wetlands the affectionate nickname of “Earth’s Kidneys.”

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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When Green Goes Bad

Flyer banner for "When Green Goes Bad" webinar

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

When you think about the environment, what color comes to mind? Green, right? Because in everything we know in the environment “Green is Good.”

And while that is very often true, in the case of lakes and ponds that suddenly go green, it is most likely the result of an algae bloom, which, increasingly, contain many harmful cyanobacteria.  Also known as “blue-green algae,” some species of these tiny, photosynthetic aquatic organisms produce toxins. The impacts of these harmful algal blooms are widespread and often not good. Not good at all.

From acute adverse human health impacts such as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems (yuck) to known deaths of animals (keep the family dog out of green water, please!!), blooms like these are becoming a more frequent occurrence and are having greater impacts.

To better understand how algal blooms impact human health, identify the toxicity of cyanobacteria, predict the probability of bloom occurrences, and share this information broadly, our researchers have been working on a research project focused this topic since 2012.

The researchers involved in the project will be sharing what they have learned during a webinar on Wednesday, June 25 from 12:00 to 1:00pm as part of EPA’s Water Research Webinar Series.

We hope you will join them to hear an overview of the breadth of their algae bloom research, and learn details about ecological modeling they conducted on cyanobacterial blooms in U.S. lakes. They will explain how they embraced the concept of “Open Science”—the movement to make scientific research and data accessible to the public.

And if that’s not enough, they will also be available for a twitter chat on June 26 from 2:00pm to 3:00pm. You can submit questions now by using #greenwater or you can wait until the day of the chat. Please follow us @EPAresearch.

To register for the webinar, please send an email to sswr@epa.org with your name, title, organization and contact information.

Meet our Scientists

Jeff Hollister, Ph.D.
EPA research ecologist Jeff Hollister received his Ph.D. in Environmental Science from the University of Rhode Island. His past experience is in applications of geospatial technologies to environmental research and broad-scale environmental monitoring, modeling, and assessment. His current research focuses on how nutrients drive the risk of cyanobacterial blooms in lakes and ponds.

Betty Kreakie, Ph.D.
EPA research ecologist Betty Kreakie earned her Ph.D. in integrative biology from the University of Texas. Her work focuses on the development of spatially-explicit landscape level models that predict how biological populations and communities will respond to human-caused influences, such as nutrient and contaminant pollution, climate change, and habitat conversion.

Bryan Milstead, Ph.D.
EPA post-doctoral research ecologist Bryan Milstead received his Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University for work on small mammal population dynamics in Chile. Before coming to EPA, he worked for the U.S. National Park Service and for the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands. His current work focuses on understanding how nutrient over-enrichment affects the aesthetic quality and risk of cyanobacteria blooms in lakes.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry communicates the many cool things happening in water science for EPA and hates #greenwater. She urges everyone to think twice about what fertilizers they use on their lawn and encourages pet owners to “pick up the poop” to reduce nutrient pollution.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Insects as Indicators

By Marguerite Huber

Twelve spotted skimmer dragonfly perched on a reed.

Twelve-spotted skimmer. Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Scientists have developed ways to use certain species as kinds of “living barometers” for monitoring the quality of the environment. By studying the abundance, presence, and overall health of such indicator species, they gain insight into the general condition of the environment. Now, EPA researchers are developing ways to use insects in this way to explore the effects of environmental contamination and how it might spread across a watershed.

The Superfund program, established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, identifies sites that contain hazardous substances, such as pollutants and contaminants, that may pose a threat to human health or the environment.

Superfund sites include former landfills, industrial and military complexes, and abandoned mines.

In their study, EPA researchers sought to determine if insect communities could be used to measure the benefits of Superfund site clean-up and to monitor the effectiveness of site remediation and restoration. To be accurate, they also had to account for the differences between impacts from Superfund contaminants, and those related to urbanization.

The researchers compared a number of indicators related to urbanization, such as land development, housing unit density, and road density.

In the end, the researchers found that once they had accounted for the effects of urban development, they were able to use insects as indicators for detecting the effects of Superfund sites in the watershed. Using what they learned from that work, they also developed models that can discriminate the effects of Superfund activities from those of development upstream, and help identify those streams where impacts exceed what would be expected based solely on the amount of development across a watershed. Researchers and others can also use the models to assess the effectiveness of remediation efforts at contaminated sites.

Overall, developing methods to tap insects as indicators is helping EPA researchers understand how Superfund sites affect entire watersheds. It’s a big step toward cleaning them up and helping EPA fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Winning Solutions for Nutrient Pollution

By Dustin Renwick

The partnership for the challenge includes: - White House Office of Science and Technology Policy - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - U.S. Department of Agriculture - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  - U.S. Geological Survey - Tulane University - Everglades Foundation

The partnership for this challenge currently includes:
– White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
– U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
– U.S. Department of Agriculture
– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
– U.S. Geological Survey
– Tulane University
– Everglades Foundation

Nutrient pollution, an excess of nitrogen or phosphorous, costs the country at least $2.2 billion annually. Excess nutrients reaching our waterways spark algae blooms that overpower otherwise healthy ecosystems. In turn, those blooms can contaminate drinking water, kill aquatic species, and create negative impacts for water-based recreation and tourism.

Members of a public-private partnership announced a prize competition in fall 2013 to collect innovative ideas for addressing nutrient overloads. The competition asked innovators to identify next-generation solutions from across the world that could help with reduction, mediation, and elimination of excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water.

Criteria for judging included technical feasibility and accompanying strategic plans for making solutions available and useful. Innovators who met the challenge requirements were each awarded $5,000. They and their winning ideas are:

  • Aaron Ruesch and Theresa Nelson, with the Bureau of Water Quality in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, proposed combining several data sources into a decision support tool for rapid watershed planning – in some cases, within a day. He used equations to estimate runoff, erosion and soil loss on farms. “All these things together help give us an index of vulnerability,” Ruesch says. The software means local watershed groups can “get the plans out the door quicker to get boots on the ground to implement actual practices.” Ruesch says the money will allow for more outreach and training across the state in the coming year.
  • David White, president of Ecosystem Services Exchange, proposed a real-time management system that would control water flow and nutrient loading in a field’s tile-drained water. This system would provide quantified evidence of nutrient reductions. “We believe we can reduce nitrogen by 25 to 50 percent,” White says. He is currently discussing a potential test project with officials in Charles City, Iowa. Phase two of White’s solution would pilot a nutrient trading program based on the reductions. “If we can create an asset class for farmers through water quality markets, we can reduce nutrients entering the waterways at a much lower cost.”
  • Jon Winsten, an agricultural economist and program officer at Winrock International, proposed a pay-for-performance incentive approach, called “model at the farm, measure at the watershed.” Science-based models quantify nutrient losses on individual fields. “Farmers have unique knowledge of their lands,” Winsten says. “By offering a performance-based incentive, then farmers are motivated to find the most appropriate and most cost-effective actions for their specific farms and fields. That’s the most efficient way to get conservation on the ground.” Farmers would receive secondary incentive payments when their entire watershed met reduction goals.

Winners may be part of ongoing discussions by federal and private partners to continue to bring innovative solutions to bear on the problem of excess nutrients in waterways.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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